A group of us was saying our farewells, when a woman approached me to share a heartfelt message. “You know, when you first introduced yourself to the group, I thought you were really arrogant.”
I’m sure the colour rushed from my face, because I felt it all land in the pit of my stomach. This woman was a recently retired consultant who had spent much of her career advising the senior leaders of an impressive list of companies. She had so impressed me with her stories and her sound advice to others, and she had just come right out and told me I was arrogant.
The colour rushed from my face, and landed in the pit of my stomach.
We were in Kiakum, my favourite building on the campus at Hollyhock, Canada’s lifelong leadership learning centre, and we had just completed the closing circle of the annual Social Change Institute (SCI), an intergenerational gathering of about 100 social change advocates and professionals. Over five days each June, we gather to share skills, ideas, and connections. It’s always an intense and inspiring week.
Perhaps she saw my shock; perhaps she didn’t. Whatever the case, to my great relief, she continued: “As I’ve got to know you this week, though, I’ve seen that wasn’t true.” Still not knowing quite how to respond, I thanked her, we chatted for a few moments, and then we promised to keep in touch.
As I moved on to say my goodbyes to a few more ‘SCIers,’ another woman approached me—an admired academic and defender of Indigenous rights, she was someone I had sensed was powerful, and I had found her intimidating. What she said took my breath away: “When you first introduced yourself to the group, I thought you were really arrogant. I’m glad to have got to know you this week, because that wasn’t true.”
Again, not knowing how to respond, and now dumbstruck by this harsh feedback, echoed in what now felt like a confined and overheating space, I thanked her, and quickly, quietly made my way out of Kiakum, and down to the beach to reflect on what I had heard….
What had I done to lead anyone to believe I was arrogant?
Could they not see I felt like the imposter in the room?! After all, I was attending an invitation-only conference alongside elected politicians, major non-profit executives, and people I looked up to as heroes in the kind of work I dreamt of doing. I’d been so nervous about misstating my intentions, or causing offense, or revealing my nervousness, I had been choosing every single word with care all week long…. I was exhausted!
When you hear feedback shared with honesty and positive intent, listen. And learn.
Naturally, I wanted to be angry. Could I dismiss out of hand the feedback I’d been offered? Could I just walk away and forget about it? “Arrogant,” they said. The opposite of how I want to show up in the world! I sat on the beach, watching the tide roll in, and thought back on the week we’d just shared—a week of openness, authenticity, and honesty. These two women were both highly accomplished leaders. I knew they were speaking honestly and with positive intent. I couldn’t simply dismiss their thoughts. I needed to listen….
They had cracked through my self-imposed defenses, replacing them with a vulnerability that I’ve learned is essential if we’re to truly and deeply learn and develop.
I eventually figured out what I had done wrong…. It had all been in the first impression, in the way I had introduced myself on the first day of the conference. I had been aiming to present myself as confident and accomplished in my own right, but I had come off as brash, possessed of all the answers to all the questions anyone in the room might ask. It hadn’t been my intention at all to appear cocky or overbearing, but that had been the takeaway for at least two of the people at SCI that year. I wonder if others in the group were equally nonplussed by my introduction? Had others avoided me that week, because of their first impression of me?
Those two courageous, caring women made me a better person, a better leader.
In some ways, that June still feels like yesterday. I’ve learned to ‘show up’ differently—trying to carry humility in my heart every day, valuing openness, because it helps me to understand the experiences of those around me, and with the generosity of spirit that leads to trusting relationships.
Those two women, generous, courageous, and caring, made me a better person that day. They made me a better leader.
Are you listening for the lessons available from the people around you? Are you ready for the coachable moment that will shock you into change? Are you ready to listen to what you don’t want to hear?
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO of Junxion. He has been described as a “peace warrior” and thought leader on issues of social importance. This is one of a series of letters he’s writing as he seeks to embrace transparency, step in to courageous conversations, and be in service to a new era. You can reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.